How to brain hack your New Year's resolution for success

It's not about the resolution but about how your mind tackles the problem.

  • Every New Year people resolve to improve their lives, only to peter out during the "February Fail."
  • Studies have shown that people who employ cognitive-behavioral processes, or brain hacks, can increase their chances of success.
  • We look at how hacking the habit loop, setting SMART goals, and silencing your inner perfectionist can help make 2019 your year.

The new year approaches and with it comes our annual habit of self-promises in the form of New Year's resolutions. Statistically speaking, though, 2019 won't be your year. While many of us start strong, we tend to flounder come February, and studies cite the failure rate to be anywhere from 80 to 90 percent.

In the face of those odds, many have grown despondent at the idea that a New Year's resolution can make a difference and choose not to make one. But that doesn't help much either. A notable study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, published in 2002, found that New Year's resolvers — people who actually tried to fix things — reported a higher rate of success in changing a life problem, than "nonresolvers." Only 4 percent of the latter group managed that feat.

The study noted that the "successful resolvers employed more cognitive-behavioral processes" than the nonresolvers or, as they are more commonly known, "brain hacks."

Reprogram the habit loop

The New Year's resolution is a means to kick start a change in your life, so you'll need to prime your brain to onboard new ways of doing things. Enter habit making.

In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, journalist Charles Duhigg investigates the neuroscience of habit forming and identifies what he calls the habit loop, a series of three steps that our brain uses to wire habits. The steps are the cue (I just got off work and I'm tired), the routine (I sit down and bust out the rocky road), and the reward (a hit of dopamine from that sweet, sweet ice cream).

To short circuit bad habits and rewire good ones, Duhigg recommends hijacking this loop by installing advantageous cues and rewards. In his Big Think interview, he explains how one might do so to create a habit of exercise:

So, here's what studies say is the number one way to start an exercise habit, eat a piece of chocolate after you work out. And what's amazing about this is that […] you will only eat that piece of chocolate for the first week and a half. You'll set up a cue, running clothes by your bed or you lace up your shoes before breakfast, something to trigger the behavior. You go on your run or you work out then you come home and eat a piece of chocolate [and] your brain will begin encoding. Your brain will eventually enjoy exercise for exercise sake, right, endorphins and endocannabinoids will create a sense of reward.

To build a strong habit, Duhigg notes, the reward part of the habit loop need to come immediately after the routine. Focusing your reward only on the ultimate goal (weight loss or a perfect beach body) will not cause your brain to associate the routine with something instantly rewarding.

Making SMART signposts

(Photo from HBO)

If anyone could have used some SMART goals, it was Ned Stark.

A major reason for the "February Fail" is that people start with large, indefinite goals. They decide, for example, to get healthier. But what qualifies as healthy? Is it getting more sleep? Is it drinking less alcohol or cooking with fewer processed foods?

They don't know, so navigating their New Year's resolution is like trying to sail from California to Japan with only the knowledge that you need to move in a westward direction. To help our brains manage the journey, we need to signpost the journey with smaller, SMARTer steps.

SMART is an acronym that spells out a better way to plan for success. SMART goals are:

  • Specific (you know how to do it);
  • Measurable (you can quantify it);
  • Action-oriented (you do something, not feel something);
  • Realistic (you know it's possible); and
  • Time-defined (you have a clear schedule for completion).

As psychologist Randy J. Paterson points out in his book How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use, SMART goals create effective, immediate objectives to make our ultimate goal more manageable.

Returning to our health example, say you wanted to reduce your alcohol consumption because it's crept into heavy territory. Instead of making the New Year's resolution to simply drink less, set a goal to drink no more than two drinks a day for the first month. It's specific, measurable, time-defined, and more realistic than cutting cold turkey. That's still a lot, though, so after your first month of success, cut it back to no more than two drinks a day, five days a week. Continue to use SMART goals like this until you've mastered the problem you resolved to solve.

Silence the inner perfectionist

\u200bJapan's Gudetama looks how every perfectionist feels about New Year's resolutions. Only in egg form.

Japan's Gudetama looks how every perfectionist feels about New Year's resolutions. Only in egg form. Photo credit: by Arnold Gatilao on Flickr

Perfectionism is antithetical to any change in our lives. After all, if you could perfectly manage what you are trying to accomplish, there would be no need for the resolution to begin with.

The problem is that it curbs progress. Paterson notes three reasons why this is:

  • Reasonable standards provide greater access to success, granting us positive boosts. Perfectionism derives us of these mental motivators.
  • Reasonable standards allow us to continue momentum on projects. Perfectionism requires a lot of time to manage minor errors.
  • Reasonable standards aren't scary. Perfectionism imposes fear of challenges because it makes excelling unachievable.

Since perfectionism requires one to focus on failures and setbacks, the brain hacker's solution is a growth mindset. A growth mindset understands that abilities and intelligence can be developed and that failure is part of that developing process. By not harping on your mistakes, readjusting, and then retrying, you too can kill your inner perfectionist and cultivate a growth mindset.

Your SMART goals will also assist you here as they require you to stick to a predefined time table — strict schedules being the kryptonite of all perfectionism.

Keep on keeping

Why was Hermione the only one \u200bcapable of progressing the plot? She always invested in learning something new.

Why was Hermione the only one capable of progressing the plot? She always invested in learning something new. Image source: Warner Bros. Pictures

As you continue, you'll inevitably hit the wall of indifference. The resolution that excited you in January may seem stale come March. To break through this wall, keep learning and expanding your repertoire of mental hacks in order to keep the novelty-seeking part of your brain primed.

One study found that an area of the brain called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA for short) responds to novelty more than other forms of stimulus, such as emotional content. The researchers argue that this provides evidence that novelty is a "motivating bonus to explore an environment in the search for reward rather than being a reward itself."

In other words, novelty can push you to keep on keeping. If your goal is to eat better, reinvest by learning a new recipe when the standards get bland. If you want to keep your exercise momentum, pick a new route to run or learn a new exercise. If you want to read more, branch out into a genre or topic that's outside your repertoire.

These brain hacks work because they require us consider the thoughts that steer behavior. Rather than allowing our emotional state to jerk our behavior around, we instead program it to move in the direction we need it to. This not only increases our chances of success but also our resilience to failure.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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